Strawberry farming in Kenya: Michael Njau calls himself an experimental farmer. The 26-year-old does not follow what others consider the normal way of growing crops.
The strawberry farmer grows the fruits in polythene bags in what he says started as an experiment, which has paid off.
“I started growing strawberries in 2010 when I was very broke. I had just quit my work at a bank in Eldoret and I had only Sh. 300. I bought 10 seedlings using the money,” he recounts. However, of the plants he bought, four died.
“I decided to put the six seedlings in nylon bags to save myself from losses. I had read from a book that it was possible to grow strawberries in polythene bags filled with soil before transplanting,” says the farmer who is based at Kikuyu, Nairobi.
Interestingly, the seedlings did well. Thereafter, he transplanted the crops, which later produced runners and splits and soon, he had 100 plants.
A strawberry plant takes three months to mature. Farmers are advised to remove the flowers to avoid deformities and to allow the plant to support itself.
“I use rabbit manure and urine as fertiliser. The smaller the animal, the better the manure. I avoid poultry manure because it is too acidic and it will burn the roots and the plants will turn yellow. The best manure is from rabbit, goat, cow or compost,” he says.
During the three month period as he waits to harvest, Njau prunes the old leaves, weeds his plants and waters them.
So far, his one-eighth piece of land holds over 1,000 strawberry plants and he has also set up a greenhouse, which holds another 1,500 strawberry plants planted on the ground.
“I opted for a greenhouse because it protects the plants from the cold season and heavy rainfall as well as pests,” he says.
Njau has lined his greenhouse with a drip irrigation system, which he purchased from a fellow farmer at Sh6,000.
Having succeeded growing the crops in nylon bags, the farmer is experimenting on a new technology. He is growing strawberry seedlings in the nursery before transplanting them in the greenhouse and polythene bags.
“If you uproot a single seedling with soil from the nursery and plant it directly, it will take two months to mature, unlike the four to six months it takes if planted directly into the soil or polythene bag when the roots are too young.” Each plant gives him seven fruits, which means he gets more than 6,000 from his over 1,000 plants.
He sells 5,000 fruits and leaves the others for home use.
“I grade the fruits, then I only sell grade one and two to hotels and groceries in Nairobi. The rest I use to make jam and juice.”
In a good month, he makes a minimum profit of Sh80,000.
Njau trains strawberry farmers and charges Sh500 per head, per session. His greatest challenges are pests and birds.
Livingstone Ekisa, an agricultural extension officer with Ministry of Agriculture, says growing strawberry in nylon bags helps save space and it is easier to control weeds.
“One uses less water since the soil does not lose moisture. The challenge is that if the water does not drain, the roots will die. Also, you need plenty of fertiliser or manure since the nutrients in the soil are limited.”
Prof Richard Mulwa, a senior lecturer at Egerton University’s Department of Crops, Horticulture and Soil, notes that growing strawberries in polythene bags is advantageous since it is easier to control diseases, one is able to use refined and superior soil.